Illegal (1932)

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Are there no bounds to a mother’s love?
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UK / 71 minutes / bw / Warner Bros. First National Dir: William McGann Pr & Story: Irving Asher Scr: Roland Pertwee Cine: Willard Van Enger Cast: Isobel Elsom, Ivor Barnard, D.E. Clarke-Smith (i.e., D.A. Clarke-Smith), Margot Grahame, Moira Lynd, Edgar Norfolk, Wally Patch, Margaret Damer, Joy Chatwin, Victor Fairley, Arthur Goullet, J. Lauriston, H. Heath, Hamilton Keene, Leo Raine.

Evelyn Dean (Elsom) has two small daughters, Ann and Dorothy (both uncredited), from her first marriage and a second husband, Franklyn (Clarke-Smith), who knocks her around and has spent all her savings on booze and the geegees. Now, emboldened by her loyal friend and neighbor Albert (Barnard), a waiter at a nearby nightclub, Evelyn has decided it’s time to throw Franklyn out—and throw him out she does, even giving him a one-way ticket she’s bought him for Cape Town:

Evelyn: “I haven’t much pride left, but I’d rather my children didn’t have the disgrace of a stepfather in jail.”

So off he goes.

Evelyn (Isobel Elsom) explains her problems to Albert (Ivor Barnard).

A few hours earlier, though, she paid off Franklyn’s bookie (Patch) with the last of her money, and the good-natured fellow told her he’d put the money on a horse, Scarecrow, running that day; any winnings beyond what Franklyn owed would be hers. And, sure enough, Scarecrow wins—and so does she: to the princely tune of £180!

Evelyn’s two daughters (both uncredited), for whom she’d sacrifice everything.

That’s enough for her to buy and renovate the niterie where Albert has been working but which has now closed down—because, Albert avers, its damnfool owners stuck to the law on gambling and after-hours drinking. Soon The Scarecrow, as Evelyn renames the club, is doing splendid business, and for some years the cops turn a blind eye to the illegalities (although these don’t number prostitution or other sexual shenanigans: we see her politely expel a lady of the night as a matter of club policy).

Evelyn explains her philosophy about the law and the breaking thereof a few years later to the headmistress, Miss Lyttleton (Damer), of a swanky school to which she wants her two girls to gain admission:

Evelyn: “I don’t know whether you’ve been on the rocks, Miss Lyttleton, but, even if you have, I don’t expect you’ve much idea—you can’t have any idea—of what it feels like to be left there with two helpless babies with the tide coming in. Gambling and drink have cheated them out of their place in the world, and rightly or wrongly—I don’t care which—I said to myself that drink and gambling should put them back where they belong. And it’s done it. . . . At least, I thought it had until now.”

Miss Lyttleton (Margaret Damer) proves to be more sympathetic than she looks.

Further years pass, and The Scarecrow, with Evelyn as boss and the ever-loyal Albert as her right arm, goes from strength to strength. Dorothy (Grahame) and her less glamorous sister Ann (Lynd)—both of whom have kept their father’s name, Turner, in preference to their stepfather’s, Dean—are now at French finishing school.

Finally the authorities decide something must be done about The Scarecrow. Undercover cops Eaves (Lauriston, looking uncommonly like old photos of John Dickson Carr) and Conway (Goullet) are sent in to case the joint, and one night there’s a full-scale raid. Evelyn gets three months in Holloway Prison.

Eaves (J. Lauriston, left) and Conway (Arthur Goullet) are two undercover officers sent in to bust the club . . .

. . . though Albert (Ivor Barnard) immediately recognizes the interlopers as the cops they are.

The widely publicized news of this brings the girls home from their swanky finishing school in a hurry, you bet. Ann, the more sensible and seemingly more intelligent of the two, decides to reopen The Scarecrow, but this time keeping well within both letter and spirit of the law; the brazenly blonde Dorothy, discovered already to be a promising chanteuse with all the, ahem, attributes, will entertain the clientele with glamour and song. As for that clientele, thanks to their swish upbringing the two girls know everyone in Debrett’s Peerage who isn’t dead and a few of those who are.

Ann (Moira Lynd) discovers the truth about her mother.

Soon Dorothy is the talk of the town and The Scarecrow a smash hit all over again. But, while Ann is being arduously and very, very respectably wooed by Lord Alan Sevington (Norfolk; “Now listen, sweetheart. I know very well who’ll take charge later, but until you’re my wife I’ll give the orders and you’ll obey them”), Dorothy is succumbing to all the flattery and adulation of the public in the most deplorable fashion, staying out until all hours and very probably—how can I put this delicately?—failing to maintain 100% chastity.

Lord Alan (Edgar Norfolk) and his sister Betty (uncredited).

That’s what her mother, Evelyn, reckons in horror on finally getting out of the joint. And it’s what Dorothy’s stepfather reckons, too. Yes, after thirteen years Franklyn’s back, like a persistent dose of what Dorothy’s risking. And he sees in Dorothy a way to make his fortune . . .

Dorothy (Margot Grahame) has become London’s favorite songthrush.

Franklyn (D.A. Clarke-Smith) is back in town . . . and on the prowl.

There’s a plethora of plot in this movie, not least because a great deal of it is rammed pell-mell into the last few minutes, as if everyone involved had been aiming for a 90-minute running time only to be told when well on through the production to wrap things up in a hurry. It’s not as if the various resolutions of the plot’s elements are themselves unsatisfying, just that their pacing stinks: the scenes concerned read as if plucked hastily from the storyboard as the most essential of those still left to be shot. This colossally rushed ending cast a shadow over my impression of the movie as a whole, which up to that point had been very favorable.

Of the cast of this British programmer, the actor most famous today is likely Margot Grahame, a blonde bombshell prolific in UK cinema in the early 1930s who went on to achieve international stardom in Hollywood in movies such as The Three Musketeers (1935) dir Rowland V. Lee, with Walter Abel, and The Buccaneer (1938) dir Cecil B. DeMille, with Fredric March. Her performance in Illegal is, though, a little like the three songs she sings: very pleasant, but interchangeable—I had to check to make sure it wasn’t a matter of her twice reprising the first song. (I was, though, fascinated to learn she spent the last quarter-century of her life as an item with London literary agent A.D. Peters, whose company I used to know well. It has now morphed into the agency Peters, Fraser & Dunlop.)

The actor here whose face I immediately recognized, though, was Ivor Barnard. He was one of those actors who, like Sam Kydd a little later, turned up all over the place and was welcome wherever he appeared but who never achieved the kind of celebrity he perhaps merited. Among his countless credits were The 39 Steps (1935), The Man Behind the Mask (1936; vt Behind the Mask), Double Exposures (1937; vt Alibi Breaker), The House of the Arrow (1940), HOTEL RESERVE (1944; starring James Mason and based on Eric Ambler’s Epitaph for a Spy), Great Expectations (1946), SO EVIL MY LOVE (1948; vt The Obsessed), Oliver Twist (1948), Paper Orchid (1949), MADELEINE (1950) and BEAT THE DEVIL (1953).

As you’ll gather, watching Illegal, with its theme of a mother prepared to sacrifice everything for the sake of an ungrateful (in Dorothy’s case) daughter, inevitably brings to mind far better-known movies like MILDRED PIERCE (1945) dir Michael Curtiz, although, to me at least, the recollection was more strongly of Stella Dallas (1937) dir King Vidor, in which Barbara Stanwyck’s daughter Anne Shirley, far from ungrateful, fully appreciates the sacrifice her mother makes. I wouldn’t say it’s a patch on either of those two, but it does pack a punch of its own, thanks to a screenplay that courts controversy—not just in its apparent condoning of illegality if the cause is just but also in the unease it creates when, quasi-incestuously, Franklyn attempts to seduce Dorothy—and to some eloquent performances, notably from Moira Lynd as the sensible sister, Ivor Barnard as the loyal friend and of course Isobel Elsom as the dedicated mother. A movie that rewards viewing, and that can be forgiven its grotesquely hurried ending.

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4 thoughts on “Illegal (1932)

    • It’s a movie that’s very definitely worth a gander, Sergio. Up to that last three or four minutes it’s really quite splendid.
      As you’ve probably guessed, I too am pretty keen on UK programmers of this era. 🙂

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